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Bowery Boys Webcomic Explores Gangland New York in 19th Century


Bowery Boys is a webcomic exploring life Antebellum New York through the experiences of one of the city’s most notorious gangs, the self-same Bowery Boys. Every week artists and veteran comics guys Cory Levine and Ian Bertram release three panels, each furthering the story of union organizer William McGovern and his son Nikolaus, who makes his way to adulthood on the mean streets of 1850s New York. See our interview with the comic’s creators after the jump.

The Bowery Boys were a peculiar bunch. Many held respectable day jobs as printers, artisans, and yes, union bosses; they were thugs with the smallest bit of polish. Taking the gang as its lens and its engine, Bowery Boys explores the political and social crises of the era, many of which echo into the present day. United by their hate of immigrants, one the strip’s many political ogres we might find familiar, the Bowery Boys turf it out with rival gangs in a city changing as quickly as the country around it.

Book 1 of Bowery Boys concluded on Monday. Book 2 begins tomorrow. A preview of the comic proves that Levine and Bertram have yet to shy away from the tumult of mid-19th century city life.

Runnin’ Scared chatted with Cory Levine about the webcomic, their place in the world of comics, and what 1850s New York can tell us about the city of 2013.

How did you and Ian come to work together?

I was introduced to Ian’s work through a mutual friend who knew that I had been itching to write a comic. He sent over Ian’s work. The samples that I saw really impressed me. It seemed like I would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to work with him. I reached out to Ian. He and I have been working on the book for a little over two years now. We developed a great professional relationship as well as friendship over that time.

Did you figure the project was going to be historical fiction from the get-go, or did you come to that subject matter later on?

Ian and I sat down, all I pitched him on a few different ideas, not all of which were historical fiction. Among our common interests, this was the kind of thing that stood out to the both of us, something that gave us interesting notions to work with, something with a great deal of depth to explore.

And it’s also a project that would be unique to our marketplace. There aren’t a whole lot of comic books out there in the historical fiction subgenre.

Go to the next page to see more artwork and the rest of our interview with Cory Levine.

Could you explain what that means? The intricacies of the comics marketplace are lost on most people.

Most people, when they think of comic books, they think of superhero comic books. But we’re seeing increasing demand for something else. People are looking for alternatives to the capes and tights that come from the major publishers in comics. They’re looking for something that defies expectations about what comic books are. I don’t mean to suggest that we’re the only historical fiction. We’re just adding to the body.

There are a fair number of historical non-fiction works in comics. We chose not to be too burdened down by what actually happened, which I think frees us to tell our own tale.

Why did you choose this particular period in history as the backdrop for the webcomic?

It’s been explored before, but that, I think, is because it’s so ripe for storytelling. It’s a period of transition in the nation and in New York specifically. It was such an active period, there’s a lot to grasp onto from a story perspective. If you look at Jacob

For Ian, it gave him a lot of compelling subject matter to draw. Looking at photo references, Obviously photography didn’t come into vogue until [later in the 19th Century]. But if you Jacob Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives, it’s just dripping with human drama.

How do you think the struggles of your characters might resonate with modern audiences?

I think there are a lot of thematic elements from which you can draw parallels to contemporary social and economic issues. One of the themes in our story is the idea of class division, as well as American xenophobia, the immigrant experience, urban living, just to name a few. The reason that’s they’re so persistent is that they are part of the broader human experience.

But I don’t think Ian and I as creators are intending to take a binary viewpoint with our work. I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to align ourselves with anyone side of a historical argument. I think we’re trying to represent the conversations as being more complicated. I don’t think it’s our place as creators how to receive our work. Our job is just to put it out there. We definitely don’t have a political agenda.